The Power of Music in James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues Essay

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The Power of Music in James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues

At first glance, "Sonny's Blues" seems ambiguous about the relationship between music and drugs. After all, the worlds of jazz and drug addiction are historically intertwined; it could be possible that Sonny's passion for jazz is merely an excuse for his lifestyle and addiction, as the narrator believes for a time. Or perhaps the world that Sonny has entered by becoming involved in jazz is the danger- if he had not encountered jazz he wouldn't have encountered drugs either. But the clues given by the portrayals of music and what it does for other figures in the story demonstrate music's beneficial nature; music and drugs are not interdependent for Sonny. By studying the
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The battered barmaid also needs music to insulate her from the perils of her life. She dances to "something black and bouncy" playing on the jukebox, keeps time, smiling, and when she smiles the reader can see both the innocent and joyous little girl she will always be and the woman still struggling for life and dignity, even though these two personalities are hidden underneath the face of a "semi-whore" (412). She is quicksilver when the music plays; there is still life in her that can be coaxed to the surface. She watches the jukebox in the pause between songs, waiting for the music to begin again, to renew her life and energy and hope. Music reveals this woman as she really is, not as she has become, not as her environment has made her. Just as it is for the whistling schoolboy, music for this woman is a small salvation.

Many more moments like these are worked into the story. The mother hums a hymn under her breath; it comforts her while she watches for Sonny, who is out on the streets (419). The narrator whistles to keep from crying after Sonny refuses his attempts at reconciliation (428). These bits of music are tiny but significant; small musics performed by non-musicians demonstrate how music creates good feelings. The mother may be singing off-key and the narrator probably whistles flat, but because of their nature as song these tunes are suffused with bits of happiness, and by making the music, the